Deadly ‘Superbugs’: The larger issues

Every year, April 7 is observed as ‘World Health Day’ across the globe. This year, 2011, is no exception. However, interestingly considering the increasing debate on the antibiotic resistance ‘Superbug’, the theme of this year has been very aptly coined as “No action today, no cure tomorrow”.

April 2011 issue of ‘The Lancet’ reported again the presence of drug-resistant bacteria NDM-1 in the public water system of Delhi.

Some observers in this area commented that this report is clearly aimed at raising alarm by recycling an old claim that has been found to be contentious, clearly suggesting indirectly that foreigners who visit India for medical and cosmetic treatments may carry back the deadly microbes with them to their respective countries.

The new report attempts to establish that the ‘Superbug NDM-1′ is no longer a hospital-born infection but can also spread through contaminated water and food. Understandably, this has raised a hue and cry in India.

Ministry of Health ridicules ‘The Lancet’ April study:

Last week the Ministry of Health rejected the above study observing that it was not only conducted with “motivated intentions”, but is illegal too. As transport of  water samples for such study out of the country requires prior permission from regulatory authorities. The authenticity of the samples also appears to be questionable, as these were reportedly to have been collected by a TV reporter.

However, just a day after the government rejected ‘The Lancet’ report, it formed a committee to look into the findings of the study, as announced by Dr R K Srivastava, Director General of Health Services, Government of India.

However, ‘The Lancet’ stands by this study report.

August 2010 report of ‘The Lancet’:

One will perhaps recall that on August 11, 2010, “The Lancet” published similar article highlighting that a new antibiotics-resistant “Superbug” originating from Pakistan has taken its first life. This happened when a patient brought to a hospital in Belgium died in June 2010 after having met with a car accident in Pakistan, where from the person got infected with this “Superbug”.

The above article was written by a team of international researchers including an Indian. The study elaborated that a new variety of enzyme named after India’s national capital New Delhi, called, “New Delhi Metallo beta lactamase” in short “NDM 1” turns any bacteria into a deadly “Superbug”, making it resistant to all types of antibiotics, leaving virtually no cure in sight. This deadly “Superbug” was reported to have already reached the United Kingdom through patients who acquired it from the hospitals in India and has the potential to precipitate serious health issues across the world. “The New Delhi Superbug” was discovered even earlier: The ‘The Lancet’ report generated a sharp reaction in India and from some of its authors regarding its authenticity. Some experts even termed this study as the ‘Western plot to undermine medical tourism in India’. A leading daily of India reported, “Indian medical journal first documented Superbug”. It stated that that the first ever formal documentation of this ‘Superbug’ was made in 2009 at the P.D. Hinduja National Hospital and Medical Research Centre located in Mumbai. This finding was published in the ‘Journal of the Association of Physicians in India (JAPI’) in March 2010. The reason for the emergence of the ‘Superbug’ was attributed to the ‘worrisome outcome of the indiscriminate use of antibiotics’. “Unfair to blame the country for the ‘New Delhi’ Superbug”: Reacting to the August article, Indian health authorities opined at that time, “It is unfortunate that this new bug, which is an environmental thing, has been attached to a particular country.” The reasons being, “Several superbugs are surviving in nature and they have been reported from countries like Greece, Israel, the U.S., Britain, Brazil and there is no public health threat and no need to unnecessarily sensationalize it”.

Some experts, however, feel, “such drug resistant pathogens, is a global phenomenon and is preventable by sound infection prevention strategies which are followed in any good hospital.”

Based on this report the ‘National Center for Disease Control of India’ started working on guidelines for appropriately recording these types of nosocomial (hospital acquired) infections.

“Superbug Hype” and Medical Tourism:

Many people of both India and Pakistan felt since then that in absence of an effective response by the health authorities, especially in India, the fast evolving Medical Tourism initiatives providing medical services ranging from complicated cardiovascular, orthopedic and cerebrovascular surgery to other life-threatening illnesses, may get adversely impacted.

The ‘blame game’: Experts have opined that overuse, imprudent or irrational use of antibiotics without any surveillance protocol is the root cause for emergence of “Superbugs”, though some Indian parliamentarians had termed the August article as the propaganda by some vested interests.

It has been alleged that the study was funded by the Wellcome Trust and Wyeth, the two global pharmaceutical companies who produce antibiotics to treat such conditions, together with the European Union.

In this context it is worth mentioning that ‘The Lancet’ article of August 2010 in its disclosures says:

“Kartikeyan K Kumarasamy has received a travel grant from Wyeth… David M Livermore has received conference support from numerous pharmaceutical companies, and also holds shares in AstraZeneca, Merck, Pfizer, Dechra, and GlaxoSmithKline, and, as Enduring Attorney, manages further holdings in GlaxoSmithKline and Eco Animal Health. All other authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.” Not a first time reported incidence: This type of situation has indeed some precedents. When ‘MRSA’ was reported for the first time, it caused similar scare. However, this time many experts feel that it is too early to conclude whether or not ‘NDM-1’ will eventually prove to be more dangerous than ‘MRSA’. Several such “Superbugs”, as stated earlier, have already been reported from countries like Greece, Israel, USA, UK, and Brazil. As I know, in the battle against infectious diseases involving both the scientists and the bacteria, the later had  to succumb mostly, in the long run. ‘NDM-1′ perhaps will be no exception. All concerned must continue to make it happen, not by mere wishful thinking but by establishing a strong procedural mechanism to keep a careful vigil on the reasons for emergence of drug resistant bacterial strains in the country.

The World Health Organization (WHO) perspective:

On Saturday, August 21, 2010 the WHO commented, “while multi-drug resistant bacteria are not new and will continue to appear, this development requires monitoring and further study to understand the extent and modes of transmission, and to define the most effective measures for control”.

International Cooperation:

US based Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), which is known as one of the world’s best-known institute for handling ‘Superbugs’, will help India in its capacity building efforts to better detect pathogens like NDM-1.

In India, the National Center for Disease Control (NCDC) with state of art facilities is expected to commence working from the next year. The facility is expected to be equipped with highly-advanced bio-safety level-II and BSL-III laboratories and would cost around Rs 382.41 Crore.

The larger issue:

The larger issue is that antibiotic resistance is fast becoming a global health concern as drug-resistant bacteria can turn a simple infection life threatening. According to the World Health Organization, ‘some 440,000 new cases of tuberculosis resistant to different types of drugs were detected last year in 60 countries across the world.’

Thus the emergence of drug-resistant ‘Superbug’ is being seen by many experts as a natural process of evolution of organisms. However, it goes without saying that indiscriminate use of antibiotics is hastening this deadly process.

R&D focus shifted more towards chronic illnesses:

Besides the reasons attributed to emergence of such “Superbugs”, as discussed earlier, one more important issue I could foresee in today’s environment compared to the past decades.

This issue possibly lies in the drastic shift in focus of pharmaceutical R&D from discovery of novel drugs for short term treatment of infectious diseases to discovery of potentially greater money spinner drugs for life-long treatment of non-infectious chronic illnesses like, metabolic disorders (diabetes), hypertension, cardiovascular diseases, psychiatric disorders, cancer, vaccines etc. This shift in the R&D focus has obviously been prompted by the tilt in the prevalence of the disease pattern towards the same direction. As a consequence, one notices hardly any significant and novel molecules in the research pipelines of either global or local pharmaceutical companies to treat  antibiotic-resistant infections.

As reported by the ‘Infectious Diseases Society of America’ between 1983 and 1987 sixteen new patented antibiotics were approved by the US FDA, while from 2003 to March 2011 only seven patented antibiotics were launched in the international market.

It is understandably not an ‘either/or’ situation so far as R&D target molecules are concerned. However, as we all know, in life-threatening conditions both types of drugs have their respective places to save precious lives.

Conclusion:

Let the global innovators ponder over the issue for newer antibiotics to counter the emerging ‘Superbugs’.

In India, the Ministry of Health should consider strictly implementing the measures suggested by the task force set up last year to prevent indiscriminate use of antibiotics. Such measures include a ban on sale of antibiotics without prescriptions and simultaneously regular audits of prescriptions of the doctors to stop irrational use of such drugs.

The need of the hour is a well-orchestrated effort by the Government, members of the civil society and the medical fraternity to have full control on this growing menace, through tangible, prudent and truly patient-friendly action .

By: Tapan J Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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